Amira Aleem

Who really has the vaccine?

I’ve been thinking long and hard about this.

How we’re possibly looking straight in the eyes of a vaccine for COVID. The headlines are there, the trials have begun. Those of us who didn’t study biochemistry have started to read up on vaccine trials and how long before we’re allowed to go out into the world again.

I wonder about the people running these trials and testing the vaccine. Some of the world’s smartest people toiling away in labs, with white coats, obsessing over this impossible task. The pressure mounting on them as each day passes, as the numbers of the deaths continue to rise. Little children around the world, whispering prayers that they find a way to do this. Everyone reading the headlines and hoping for good news.

I wonder if they are having sleepless nights, waking up in the dark of night, on their way to the bathroom and running over formulae in their head. I imagine them sitting down to meals with their families and absently scribbling things with their fingers in the air. I can see them, pausing to take a break in the lab, and spending a few moments leaning their head against the cool walls in the bathroom as they scroll Instagram.

And, I think of the vaccine dancing just beyond their understanding, playing hard to get, dashing and darting out of sight. And then I wonder if someone, SOMEONE in the world, already has it. Or would have had it.

I wonder if it’s in the head of the little boy selling cloths outside my car window as he presses his sweaty face up against the glass that divides us. I wonder if it’s in the face of the little girl playing next to her mother selling vegetables with the two braids held in little scallops with ribbons. I look at the sleeping baby in the cot behind the counter of the couple who sells Hot Chips and wonder if this baby will have the answer the world so desperately needs.

And so, the researchers in the halls of Oxford, or the Cipla scientists tire away because they’re the ones who have had the opportunities to be able to study these subjects. To have their minds disciplined into scientific enquiry, to have their attempts at finding out and knowing, validated and vetted.  They’re the lucky ones. Their education made a difference, and now the world had come knocking to collect its dues.

Image courtesy Financial Express

This is the price they pay for their privilege, and rightfully so. But for the millions of children too poor to afford to go to school, with crumbling public education systems and homes that need them working to survive, the odds have been stacked against them. There was no “do you want to be a biochemist when you grow up?” question. There was a “do you want to grow up?” question – and the answer to that was always a resounding ‘yes’.

And so, I wonder what would have happened if they had been sent to school with bags packed full of books. Safe houses to come home and do homework in, full bellies on which to think and parents who had the head-space to care for their emotional needs – parents who were seen as valuable members of society, parents who had faith in public institutions if things went wrong.

I wonder how much sooner we would have found the vaccine – how many less people would have died. How much less economic upheaval there would have been, and a moment much sooner with a gleaming answer in someone’s eyes.

The thing about poverty is the lies we tell ourselves to make ourselves feel better. I’ve been told not to give to the poor children who beg on the streets because they will give it to some criminal mastermind hiding just out of sight. I’ve been told that homeless people who ask for money will spend it on drugs and I’ve been told consistently that poverty is just the “way things are.”

And I’ve been told that today, we’re all waiting on the researchers at Oxford, because they, and only they, are our best bet for a vaccine.

I just don’t buy it anymore.

I think the truth is that being poor is having every odd stacked against you in every way possible. I think it means you are stuck in a labyrinth and someone has built a wall around it and forgot to build a door. There is no way out.

So, no matter how smart you are or how hard you work, getting out of poverty is nearly impossible.  There are no criminal gangs (despite what movies will have us believe), there is no personal failing of someone who is poor, and no one, NO ONE, who begs on the street has any option but to.

I remember once as a child, I was out in the car with my family when a boy flagged us down. It was pouring, the roads in Bangalore were flooded, and this boy was standing with his mother in a burka and asking, begging, pleading with someone to take his mother to the hospital. My parents stopped and talked to the boy. I don’t remember what happened after. But when we found out later it was a scam, and that he did this regularly, I remember my parents feeling angry and annoyed that they had been tricked.

Now, I think that I’d be pretty angry and annoyed if I lived in a system where my having to stand by the road in the pouring rain to beg someone to take my ill mother to a hospital is a plausible situation, and that it could happen.  I feel like I’d want to trick someone out of their money, if the joke had always been on me. To scream and shout and get someone to notice me and not gloss over my existence because they didn’t know how to respond.

So, when I hear of someone overcoming poverty and fighting their way out, I’m ashamed if I’m amazed that they’ve done it. When I herald it as a miracle story – that amazing moment when they prove that every odd stacked against them didn’t matter.

Because, the truth is, there is no moral high-ground in being wealthy. I write this piece on a laptop, in a safe home, with enough food to fill my belly and a safe bed to sleep in at night, and I tell myself these things to remind myself that being comfortable is not something I have any control over. It is my responsibility in every moment of every day to work towards addressing the imbalance because the system is flawed. It’s always been flawed, and I don’t have the answers.

So, when I clap for NHS workers and doctors or hope and desperately scan the headlines for the vaccine, I’ll remember that, for now, they are not only our best bet, they are our only bet. But, I’m willing to bet there’s more than one intelligent mind lost in a sea of potential who could find us answers. I’ll bet that the vaccine will be one answer, but I’ll bet with every fibre of my being, that the ANSWER, the real long-term answer, of how we get ourselves out of this mess will be the most important question we will ever ask.

And that making sure the person who has that answer is safe, fed and at school, well, the future of our world depends on it.

Article by Amira Aleem

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